Diego Forlan: The making of a Manchester United cult hero

Diego Forlan in action for Manchester United.
Diego Forlan in action for Manchester United.

Diego Forlan arrived at Manchester United in 2002 with eyes full of hope, locks of beautiful golden hair and a bag full of expectations. Sir Alex Ferguson had just paid £10 million for a virtually unknown Uruguayan from Argentinian club Independiente. It could have been a fairytale story at the Theater of Dreams. But, as fate would have it, it wasn’t to be.

Forlan managed to score only 17 times in the 97 appearances he made for the Red Devils. He was then sold to Villarreal in August 2004 as he fell behind Ruud van Nistelrooy and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the pecking order. He went on to have a celebrated career at Villareal and Atletico Madrid, winning the prestigious Pichichi trophy twice. Forlan became the first Uruguayan to win 100 caps for his national team. His performances at the 2010 World cup earned him the Golden Ball. He even played in the Indian Super League for Mumbai City FC.

Why Forlan's move to arguably one of the biggest clubs in world football did not work out remains a mystery. For many people though, it was an unfortunate combination of bad luck, limited opportunities and low confidence.

Forlan's lack of goalscoring, however, did not stop United fans from giving him cult status at the club.

Even today, 13 years since Forlan graced Old Trafford, whenever Manchester United visit Liverpool his name is sung. His brilliant two-goal performance in December 2003 against arch-rivals at Anfield is still fondly remembered. “He came from Uruguay, he made the Scousers cry” is the chant United fans sing in memory of their Uruguayan hero.

Diego Forlan's beginnings:

Forlan was born in the city of Montevideo in Uruguay to Pablo Forlan, a Uruguayan footballer who had played for some of the biggest clubs on the continent. Diego however did not have any intentions of becoming a professional football player as a kid. Instead, he wanted to be a tennis player.

But tragedy struck one day and Forlan’s life changed. His older sister got into a horrifying accident which left her paralyzed. The Forlan family struggled to gather enough funds to pay for her medical bills. But then a certain Diego Maradona swooped in to help the family out. Twelve-year-old Forlan was mesmerized. He decided this is what he wanted to be. A footballer.

After being rejected by French club Nancy at the age of 16, Forlan joined Argentinian club Independiente’s youth squad. He made his debut at the age of 18 in front of a roaring crowd of 52,000 supporters. It was clear from day one that the boy was destined for greatness.

After four wonderful years at the Argentinian club, where he scored 40 goals in 91 appearances, Forlan started to attract interest from a lot of clubs in Europe. Middlesbrough were the leading candidate to sign the youngster in the summer of 2002, only for Manchester United to swoop in and hijack the deal. With a head full of dreams, Forlan set out to start this life on the grandest stage in world football.

Diego Forlan, the cult hero

Even though he joined United in August 2002, he had to wait until March to get his first start for the Red Devils in a game against Tottenham Hotspur. Off the ball, he was running everywhere, pressing, doing his best, but with the ball, he lacked confidence. He missed many chances to score and that went on to summarize his time at United.

He finished his first season at the club, making only 13 appearances in the Premier League. However, he earned a call to the Uruguayan national team for the 2002 World Cup. Forlan's brilliant performances in front of goal, including a sensational volley against Senegal, showed the club and the rest of the world what he was really capable of. Once the World Cup was over, it felt like Forlan returned to Manchester a new man.

Alex Ferguson publicly supported him and said that he had been the best player during the team’s pre-season preparation. However, this did not translate to good form once the season started. He had to wait till September of 2002, to get a goal. A penalty in the Champions League against Maccabi Haifa.

He had to wait another month to score his first Premier League goal, a late winner against Aston Villa. The English media, however, weren’t kind to the Uruguayan celebrating by taking his t-shirt off. In the words of Clive Tyldesley, “The joke of English football now needed a new punchline.”

Diego Forlan struggled to adapt at Manchester United.
Diego Forlan struggled to adapt at Manchester United.

However, this was the start of his best patch at the club. He went on to grab the winning goal against Southampton and two assists against Newcastle in his next two outings for the club.

But the day his name was etched into Manchester United folklore came on 1 December 2002. Anfield, the home of Liverpool, is considered to be one of the most hostile stadiums to visit in England, especially if you are Manchester United.

But it was Diego Forlan’s day to shine. First, he capitalized on an error from Liverpool’s keeper Jerzy Dudek and scored from close range. Then, Ryan Giggs danced through Liverpool's midfield to find Forlan in acres of space. Forlan controlled the ball and then slotted it into the net, cementing his name in United's history books. Diego Forlan had finally arrived.

His form continued with goals against a range of clubs including Burnley and Chelsea. Unfortunately, though, this was the peak of his United career. An injury against Juventus saw his first-team minutes reduced and his form in front of goal dried up again.

This continued into the 2003-04 season. Forlan ended his third season at the club with seven goals, with only three of them coming in the Premier League.

With Wayne Rooney set to arrive in the summer of 2004, it was clear that Forlan’s time at the club was over. His final appearance came in a 1-0 loss against Chelsea, where he slipped and fell in front of goal to miss a golden opportunity.

His switch to La Liga in 2004 turned out to be one of the best decisions of his life, as he scored 154 goals in seven years in Spain for Villarreal and Atletico Madrid. He became one of Europe’s top strikers and was feared across the continent. Forlan propelled Uruguay to the semi-finals of the 2010 World Cup, where he was awarded the Golden Ball for his match-winning performances.

While his time at Manchester United may not have been anything close to being successful, it was enough to earn him cult status at Old Trafford.

Diego Forlan left everything on the pitch and never gave anything less than a hundred per cent. The stats might not be as kind to him as the fans singing in the northeast stand at Anfield would be. Maybe numbers don’t always tell the whole story.

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Edited by Manas Mitul
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